Twenty years ago, San Juan del Sur was just another tiny fishing village on Nicaragua’s southwest coast. But, as is often the case, it was eventually discovered by international surfers chasing unknown breaks and less crowded beaches and, well, the rest is history.
Ask a local and they’ll tell you that as recently as 10 years ago there were only a handful of cars on the roads and a house or two dotting the lush green hills surrounding the crescent-shaped bay that San Juan del Sur calls home. But with word spreading and a land grab underway as investors rush to capitalize on the area’s growing popularity, San Juan del Sur has transformed into a hybrid high-end vacation destination, surfer’s paradise, backpacker party central and North American retiree enclave.
But look closely, past the parties and the expats, and you’ll see that the little fishing village is still at the heart of this coastal gem.
It’s midday at the end of November, and high season is just starting to kick off. The streets are busier than they were a month ago, but the raucous crowds of Christmas and Easter Week are still nowhere in sight. During the day, there are only a handful of people on the local beach, many surfers and wannabe surfers having hopped on shuttles to neighboring bays.
Even the sunglass sellers are taking a break from the heat, chatting on shaded sidewalks with their wares resting against the restaurant walls. Out on the waves, one paddle boarder coasts along sharing the water with no one but the anchored fishing boats further out to sea.
It takes about 15 minutes to walk every inch of the main area of town, the streets full of the brightly painted storefronts that characterize Nicaragua. Most shops are geared towards tourists, offering surf lessons, beach attire, hostel rooms and more surf lessons. There are also over 70 restaurants ranging from pricey beach front seafood restaurants to local eateries like La Lancha near the central market which serves a lunch of meat or fish, gallo pinto (rice with brown beans), fried plantains and salad for an unbelievable price of 50 cordobas (about $1.80).
While there is “Western Food” a plenty – from donuts to pizza – you can get a plate full of delicious local food from any of the comedores (small local eateries) in town for about 80 cordobas including drink. It’s a great way to save money and put some money in the pockets of local families.
When the sun starts to set and the thermometer drops, the beach comes to life. People gather at beachfront happy hours to enjoy a sundowner drink or just pull up a bit of sand to enjoy one of the best sunsets in Central America. A group of local boys plays two-on -two volleyball almost every evening and sun bathers can quickly find themselves in the middle of the makeshift pitch of a beach football match.
Once the sun has gone down, the town transforms into party central with beach bars blaring salsa and reggaeton and backpackers and local tourists gathering at the various pubs and clubs around town. Nights can get sloppy and thefts are common against tourists stumbling home after a night of one too many. But if you avoid the beach and the back streets after dark, keep your wits about you and take a taxi if you live further out of town, your biggest problem will be the pounding headache you wake up with the next morning.
Even in the middle of all this, you can still see signs of the times before the tourism boom when this was just a sleepy little beach town. In the heart of the village in the central park, children in their school uniforms climb the jungle gym in the playground. Along the main street as the evening wind blows away the steaming heat of the day, local households drag out their rocking chairs and while away the hours chatting on the sidewalk. And everywhere you look are the smiling faces of people living their day-to-day lives, greeting friends along the way.
Some people think that the local people can be pushy, always yelling “taxi” or trying to sell some sort of trinket or sunglasses. But, business is business, and their pushiness provides their only source of income. Look past all that and take the time to strike up a conversation, and you’ll find friendly and open people with a strong sense of community.
One afternoon when we were buying produce from the market, we noticed a couple of the vendors and restaurants giving a mentally handicapped man some food. The man shuffled past us with his bowl of gallo pinto and bananas and a smile from all the vendors he passed.
A couple days later, we saw the same man walking down the street a bit out of town. Another local guy passed him and without uttering a word took a 20 cordoba bill and placed it in the hands of the handicapped man. It happened so quickly, so nonchalantly without a word being uttered, that at first we weren’t sure what happened. But as the handicapped man put the money in his pocket and carried on, we realized that not only do people in the community offer money to those in need without even being asked; it was so common place that no verbal exchange was needed.
I won’t use the cliché about people having so little giving so much, because I don’t want to assume that just because the donor was Nicaraguan he ‘had so little’. But, I will say that to see a community that takes care of its most vulnerable members is an amazing thing to witness.
The many expats that now call San Juan del Sur home have also embraced the community spirit. At a foreign owned restaurant/sports bar on the beach, we saw two children selling trinkets on the beach come into the restaurant to finish off a half-eaten meal left by some patrons. Instead of being shooed off by the restaurant staff, they were allowed to enjoy their free meal that would have otherwise been emptied into the trash.
After a month here, it’s the small moments like these that I’ll remember about San Juan del Sur, along with the amazing days on the beach and intoxicated nights at the bar.
It’s important to remember that you are a guest in these people’s village, in their home. Treat them and their environment with respect and take the time to smile and say a ‘buenos dias’ when you pass someone sitting in their chair on their porch. Or, strike up a conversation with the person who tries to sell you bracelets on the beach. That’s how we found a fishing trip that was more than half the normal price and met some great people that made us feel like old friends every time we ate at their restaurant, shopped at their shop or passed them on the street.
So when you visit San Juan del Sur, remember to open your eyes and see beyond the touristy façade to get a glimpse of the small fishing village that’s the foundation of the town.